Jake Virtanen, the accidental Canadian with Finnish roots, will accompany the rest of Team Canada’s U20 team to his ancestral homeland on Monday. He’ll have a second career World Junior Championship gold medal on the mind.
“To represent your country is always an honour,” Virtanen told reporters on Sunday, just moments before he found out from Hockey Canada that the Canucks had loaned him out for the upcoming 2016 World Junior Tournament in Helsinki, Finland. “Last year was a pretty crazy experience for me.”
Virtanen was part of Team Canada’s gold-medal winning team at the 2015 tournament, but he played a supporting role. As a 19-year-old and a bona fide NHL player, the expectations will be different this time.
“’I’ll have to step up and try to be a leader on that team, and hopefully I’ll be able to do that,” Virtanen said Sunday.
It has been a whirlwind season for the young Canucks forward. Though Virtanen impressed enormously at Canucks training camp and managed to break camp with the team; in recent weeks – prior to sustaining a hip-pointer injury in early December – Virtanen had become an increasingly regular healthy scratch.
The young winger’s physical game and skating ability is already high-end, even relative to other NHL players. The offensive production hasn’t quite been there yet. Team Canada is counting on him being able to find his scoring touch against opponents in his own age group.
“Obviously this year (I’ll) want to help the team score a little bit more than last year,” Virtanen said Sunday.
“I think with the experience of last year, bringing that mentality of being a leader,” Virtanen continued, discussing how he thinks he can help Team Canada. “Play my power forward-type of game, get in on the forecheck and make hits.”
The burgeoning Canucks power winger has been a mainstay of Canadian junior teams in the recent past. Though he’s a proud Canadian now, it could’ve been much different. The Virtanen family actually ended up in Canada as a result of a careless error.
“When my Dad was really young, they wanted to go to Vancouver, Washington and booked the wrong tickets,” Virtanen recounts of his family history. “So they ended up in Vancouver, and ended up liking it there. So, they're like ‘Ok, I guess we'll just stay here!’”
"At least it wasn't like Regina,” Virtanen joked before adding, “My brother actually plays in Regina…”
A Finnish family’s generation-old travel gaffe has proven to be a happy mistake for this hockey-mad country. And based on how two of the past three players that have captained Team Canada’s U20 team were loaned to Hockey Canada by NHL organizations, it even seems possible that Virtanen – the accidental Canadian - will wear the C for Team Canada at this tournament.
“It would be pretty special,” Virtanen said of the possibility of wearing the captain’s C at the tournament. “There's a lot of good leaders on that team and a lot of returning guys who would deserve it. It would obviously be a huge honour to wear the C, but there would be big shoes to fill last year with Curtis (Lazar) and a lot of other guys who have played in the NHL for a lot of years."
Until the last minute the Canucks were cagey about whether or not Virtanen would be loaned out to Hockey Canada. The cloak and dagger routine aside, this decision was something of a no brainer though.
“It wasn’t (a difficult decision),” Canucks president Trevor Linden admitted to Sportsnet of the decision to loan Virtanen to Team Canada on Sunday evening. “It’s a great opportunity for him.
“Playing at the National League level, not getting as much opportunity, as much power-play time, as much puck possession time… To have an opportunity like this is important at this stage.”
So really what we’re looking at here is a win-win-win.
It’s obviously a win for Team Canada. Hockey Canada was admittedly “crossing their fingers” that Virtanen would be made available to them and now that he has been, they’ve added a first-line caliber player to their tournament roster. Virtanen is a potential game breaker. He’s sure to be among the fastest and most physical skaters at the tournament.
And for Virtanen, the young forward gets an opportunity to take on a leadership role and perhaps find his scoring touch against players his own age.
"That's a great opportunity,” opined Comets coach Travis Green of the developmental benefits of competing at the World Juniors. “Any time you get to play for your country on a stage like that, only good things can happen.
”It's a great experience for guys and it's a special time of year."
For the Canucks, this is a tremendous developmental opportunity for one of their most promising young players and loaning Virtanen out to Team Canada also solves something of a logjam.
The Canucks are deep on the wing and though Virtanen has enjoyed some dynamic moments at the NHL level, it was tough to figure out where he’d slot into the lineup regularly going forward.
In the latter half of November, Virtanen was taking turns swapping in and out of the press box with 22-year-old forward Sven Baertschi. Now both players will have a chance to play regularly for at least the next three weeks.
Vancouver will also buy themselves some time in making a decision on whether or not to allow Virtanen to accrue a season towards unrestricted free agency and arbitration eligibility, which will occur at the 40-game mark. The club’s understanding is that games played while Virtanen is on loan to Hockey Canada will not count towards that milestone.
“(The 40 game mark) is definitely a marker that we’ll consider,” Linden told Sportsnet on Sunday. “Nine games was a marker, and certainly 40 will be. We’ll assess as we move closer.”